Few people (save die-hard aficionados) would guess that the legendary critic and journalist Henry Louis Mencken once wrote fiction. Now Douglas Olson, a Mencken aficionado himself, has collected 17 short stories, published between 1900-1905, even unearthing one previously unrecorded by Mencken’s expert bibliographer, Betty Adler.
The newly launched independent publisher, Forgotten Stories Press, is “devoted to rediscovering the forgotten works of famous writers.” In this volume, Mr. Olson has provided a service to scholars and Mencken fans alike. Not since 1973, when scholar Carl Bode assembled “The Young Mencken,” have we been given a ticket into the world of Mencken - before he was Mencken.
During these early years, Mencken was working at the Baltimore Herald 12 hours a day, seven days a week. In his free time he was writing poetry, articles and short stories, carefully recording every acceptance or rejection. The eventual publication of his material taught him a useful lesson: that “the prestige of a reporter is even more nourished by what he does outside the office than by what he does inside and for it.” Writing fiction was also valuable in teaching him, by practice, the craft he later assessed as a critic and magazine editor.
In a review in “The Smart Set,” Mencken noted: “It seems easy to spin such droll … such simple plots. But those of us who have poured out our sweat upon the making of short stories know just how much careful planning, just how much effort, goes into every one of them.”
Many of the themes and exotic locales of Mencken’s fiction reflectedhis reading, especially that of Rudyard Kipling. His trips to Jamaica and interest in Central America became the setting for many of the stories assembled here, providing a fascinating glimpse into how Mencken perceived the “ugly American” when dealing with Latin Americans, Europeans and blacks. Others realistically recount tales closer to home. “The Cook’s Victory” was about a Chesapeake oyster fleet, stemming from his experience as a reporter roving the Baltimore waterfront. “The Star-Spangled Banner” captures Mencken’s love and knowledge of music. Although “The Last Cavalry Charge,” published in 1906, predates the slaughter of World War I, it offers a prescient glimpse of it.
It was not until “The Flight of the Victor,” published in Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly magazine, in 1901, that one begins to recognize the voice of a fledgling satirist. The story, one of the strongest assembled, earned Mencken a whopping $50 and the encouragement of the magazine’s editor, Ellery Sedgwick (later of the Atlantic), who praised the young author for the story’s directness, simplicity and vividness. It recounts the competition between two rival newspapers in Kingston, both of which ceased labor at dusk. No fire, earthquake, or murder was reported until the morning of the second day: “in consequence, the people of Jamaica came to look upon history as news.” One eventually scoops the other, of course.
“The Bend in the Tube,” my favorite here, also deals with the world of newspapers at the turn of the century, and again demonstrates Mencken’s strength as humorist. Published in 1905, “The Bend in the Tube” has a style and rhythm and turn of phrasefar superior to the earlier stories, with their overuse of cliche and stereotype. The inspiration in real life was Mencken’s boss, Frank Peard, president and general manager of the Baltimore Herald. Years later, Mencken would privately remark: “I have never, in this life, met a worse jackass.”
With spasmodic persistence, Peard summoned his workers from their labors through a speaking tube, a relic from the old newspaper days. With each shrill whistle, Mencken and his colleagues knew they would be subjected to inane questions from “the preposterous Peard,” stealing precious time from work at hand. Peard’s stupidities are perfectly captured here by way of description and dialogue, as is the frustration of the main character, a reporter named Boggs, a “lunatic” and “anarchist” who bitterly plots revenge. I won’t ruin the ending (reminiscent of O. Henry), but I will say it is extremely entertaining and well worth the price of admission.
Mencken’s editorial advice to his girlfriend (later wife), Southern writer Sara Haardt, applies to some (but by no means all) of the stories: “…it has a sort of second-hand air: you are looking at its people through a knothole in the fence, not living with them.” Some of these are the tales of a promising apprentice, not those of an artist, as one senses in the early fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald. That truth sadly dawned on him in 1905, when he abandoned writing works of fiction in favor of literary and social criticism. “I had no talent for them,” he admitted, “…they were hollow things, imitative and feeble.”
The assessment is far too harsh. What Mencken did possess was a keen ear for dialogue, an interest in American vernacular and foreign phrases, and a wonderful sense of satire. Even the weakest demonstrate the flash of an original and witty personality. Reading some of these forgotten stories is indeed a pleasure.
• Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the biographer of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast.”
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